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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 18.37%
Average: 2.04%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 4.08%

5 reviews, 19 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"Miyaaki Reels In Another Whopper"
5 stars

At one point during “Ponyo,” the latest animated feature from master filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, a character remarks that “you can’t be human and magic at the same time.” In the context of this particular film, that seems like an odd sentiment to espouse since every single frame on display seems to definitively prove the fact that humans--or Miyazaki, at the very least--possesses those very powers. This is a gorgeously realized fairy tale for audiences of all ages that enraptures them not with elaborate special effects, obnoxious pop-culture references and noise but with a gently soothing approach, a story that will capture the imaginations of kids and adults alike and some of the most beautiful animation ever seen on a movie screen. In a year that has already seen two absolutely brilliant animated works in “Coraline” and “Up,” this film not only manages to match those considerable achievements, it actually outdoes them.

Loosely inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” “Ponyo” tells the story of an adorable little fish (eventually voiced by Noah Cyrus), albeit one sporting a human-like face and a kicky red dress, who lives beneath the sea with her father (Liam Neeson), a human who has rejected his own kind because of their destructive tendencies towards the oceans and who is trying to develop a magical elixir that will restore them once and for all, and hundreds of tiny look-alike sisters. Curious about the surface world that her father is always ranting about, she hitches a ride upon a jellyfish and floats up to the surface just in time to be caught up in a dredging net collecting the junk that has carelessly been tossed into the water over the year. Ponyo escapes but finds herself trapped inside a glass jar that washes ashore. There, she is rescued by Sosuke (Frankie Jonas), a little boy who lives in a remote house high above the ocean with his frazzled mom (Tina Fey) and largely absent sailor father (Matt Damon) and the two become fast friends. Ponyo loves the human world--especially when she discovers the joys of ham--but before long, her father manages to retrieve her and bring her back to her home beneath the sea.

It goes without saying, of course, that Ponyo is heartbroken and immediately makes plans to escape in order to be reunited with Sosuke. In attempting to do this, she accidentally unleashes the elixir and it transforms her into a real girl and her sisters into enormous fish that take her to the surface and speed through the ocean in search of Sosuke. Unfortunately, by being able to move between the two worlds, Ponyo has unwittingly upset the balance of nature and unless she chooses one or the other, the entire planet is in danger of being destroyed. Of course, Ponyo doesn’t notice any of this--she is too excited about being reunited with her friend and ham--but after Sosuke’s mom goes off to check on the residents of the nursing home she works at in the aftermath of the tsunami that she and her sisters inadvertently caused, the two kids set sail on a journey themselves that is ostensibly about finding Mom but which will leave the possible fate of the world hanging in the balance.

Over the years, Miyazaki has given us some of the greatest animated films ever made--“Princess Mononoke,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” are among his better-known titles in the United States--but while they have been perfectly suitable for families interested in exposing their kids to movies that aren’t merely extended toy commercials, they have never really been kid films per se with their advanced themes, reasonably complex narratives and decidedly non-cutesy visual styles. With “Ponyo,” Miyazaki has shifted his cinematic approach by making a film that is deliberately aimed at younger viewers--the storytelling is simple and the visual design is bright, colorful, and reminiscent of simple children’s drawings throughout. At first, the shift from the more literal and realistic visual style of much of his previous work may seem a bit jarring at first for longtime fans, that feeling quickly disappears when it becomes obvious that while the animated style may look simpler, it is actually just as formally complex and aesthetically dazzling as anything he has done before. Some of the scenes here, such as our first look at Ponyo’s undersea world and the jaw-dropping sequence in which she cheerfully hops from fish to fish in search of Sosuke while blithely leaving untold destruction in her wake, are so breathtaking to behold that I am already counting down the days until the film comes out on Blu-ray so that I can examine them at length. The character design is also extraordinary, especially when you consider that a creature that resembles a giant goldfish with a human face in a red dress should theoretically be more appalling than appealing. Nevertheless, all of the characters in the film are beautifully rendered, none more so than Ponyo’s mother, Gran Mamare (Cate Blanchett), a creature so ravishing that she makes Jessica Rabbit seem practically dowdy by comparison.

When people write about Miyazaki and his extraordinary gifts as a filmmaker, they tend to focus almost exclusively on the visual aspects of his films and you can hardly blame them for that. However, what sometimes gets lost in the rush to praise those visuals is the fact that he is also a pretty extraordinary storyteller as well. As I mentioned earlier, “Ponyo” is a story that is clearly aimed at a younger audience than usual and as a result, the narrative isn’t quite as complex as those found in most of his other projects. That said, the themes that emerge--the struggle to maintain a harmonious balance between mankind and nature, the natural conflicts that arise between parents and children and the like--are far deeper and more profound than the ones normally found in kid-oriented films and yet, Miyazaki has figured out how to deploy these themes in such a way so that children can easily grasp what they are trying to say without doing it in such a ham-handed way that older viewers get bored or irritated. Beyond that, the storyline is truly compelling--even if you suspect that everything is going to turn out more or less okay, he still finds a way of letting things develop in such a way that there are still some surprises in store. I also liked the relaxed pacing as well--at a time when most films seem to steamroller their way from one big set-piece to the next, this is one that has the wisdom to take the time to slow down and let viewers get caught up in the gentle rhythms of the story.

Whether you are a small child awaiting his or her first trip to the movies, a jaded teenager looking for something new and different or a parent trying to find something to see that will not only be suitable for the entire family but entertaining as well, “Ponyo” is the kind of dazzling cinematic experience that will resonate in the hearts and minds of anyone who sees it for a long time afterwards. The only thing that even slightly mars this film is the decision by Disney during the end credits to segue from the lovely score composed by longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi to a couple of fairly awful pop songs that seem to have been shoved in so that they could be played incessantly on Radio Disney in the hopes of luring more kids into theaters. I don’t necessarily object to including songs at this point--for all I know, the original Japanese version has some as well--but the tunes are nothing more than grating garbage that come terrifyingly close to destroying the delicate magic of everything that has preceded it. My advice--watch the film and when the end credits kick in, clap your hands over your ears and leave the theater as quickly as possible before the lousiness of the end music can cause you to forget just how wonderful the rest of “Ponyo” truly is.

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originally posted: 08/14/09 14:00:00
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User Comments

11/13/20 bored mom Ponyo's kappa-like transitional appearance is grotesque and horrifying, not cute 3 stars
4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
6/19/11 Jennifer B. great loved it 5 stars
5/08/11 MOJOJO Absolutley loved i! 5 stars
11/07/10 Will Russell MIyazaks lays down another beauty! 4 stars
10/18/10 millersxing Best film on puppy love (or should I say "guppy" love) since Let the Right One In 5 stars
6/25/10 brian I have a new favorite Miyazaki film. I didn't think that was possible. 5 stars
5/19/10 ikkin74 Delightful. The kids loved it as much as I did! 5 stars
3/25/10 Jeff Miyazaki's best film since "Spirited Away" and "My Neighbor Totoro". 5 stars
1/19/10 Gerritt Enchanting for young and old - another Ghibli masterpiece. 5 stars
1/16/10 Omar Miyazaki Hayao at his prime. 5 stars
11/23/09 Lisa Great film. My 2, 5, and 8 year old girls all loved it and so did I. 5 stars
9/20/09 jan every child in theatre was enchanted as was i 4 stars
8/24/09 Sirus Amazing animation, miyazaki took no shortcuts 5 stars
8/22/09 Paul I took my Grandaughter who loves all his films, Well worth the trip 5 stars
8/21/09 Mrhide a must. plain and simple. 5 stars
8/16/09 karamashi Another Miyazaki classic. Unbelievably wonderful! 5 stars
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  14-Aug-2009 (G)
  DVD: 02-Mar-2010


  DVD: 02-Mar-2010

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